Rodric Braithwaite: Is the USSR's Vietnam to be ours, too?

Our writer on learning from the Soviets in Afghanistan

Share
Related Topics

It was largely thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that the Soviet Union finally extricated itself from its bloody nine-year war in Afghanistan in reasonable order. As The IoS reports today, he now advises the Prime Minister to leave Afghanistan, and the sooner the better. It is good advice. But as he admits, it is easier said than done.

For the Soviets, Afghanistan was a worrying place, a neighbour that was a source of Islamic agitation, smuggled drugs, and American intrigue. It was a place where they needed influence, friends, and political stability. They believed that they had much to offer in return. Socialism had brought their own Central Asian Republics industry, healthcare, clean water, and education – for girls as well as boys. It could do the same in Afghanistan. Alas, the Afghans rejected what the Russians thought they had to offer.

Unfortunately, too, the Communists who took over in Kabul in April 1978 were fanatical, ignorant, and brutal. In March 1979, the Western city of Herat rose against them. They asked the Russians to send troops to help restore order. The Russians refused. But as the year advanced, the Afghan regime degenerated into bloody chaos.

So the Russians decided that something had to be done. They persuaded themselves that it could be done quite cheaply: send in some troops (far fewer than they had needed in Czechoslovakia a decade earlier), replace the Afghan leadership, train up the Afghan army and police, and bring the troops home within a year. They were not trying to expand their empire, to threaten Western oil supplies in the Gulf, or to secure themselves a warm water port: all that was Western propaganda.

But one Soviet official wondered gloomily: "Have we learnt nothing from Vietnam?" And indeed, within weeks of their invasion in December 1979, the Russians too were stuck in a bloody quagmire. They soon began to look for a way out, but ran up against a brick wall. Their opponents – the mujahedin and their sponsors in Pakistan – resolved to replace the Communists in Kabul by an Islamic government of their choosing. Many Americans were content that the Russians should bleed indefinitely; some thought that was fair compensation for their own sufferings in Vietnam.

Gorbachev came to power in March 1985 determined to cut the knot, but equally not to "flee in panic", as he puts it. In October, he told the Afghans that Soviet troops would leave in a year or 18 months. It was not until September of the following year that the mujahedin shot down the first Soviet helicopter with Stinger missiles supplied by the CIA. The Stinger was a formidable weapon but, contrary to Western myth, it had no effect on Gorbachev's decision to withdraw.

For three years, Gorbachev and his people negotiated doggedly for a deal that would preserve the honour of the Soviet Union, and perhaps persuade the Russian people that their sons had not died in vain. In the end, the Soviet army departed in good order, undefeated on the battlefield, leaving a friendly government under President Najibullah, and a competent army.

Then it fell apart. The Russians cut off the weapons and fuel on which Najibullah relied. The rebels entered Kabul. A civil war broke out, ended by the dubious victory of the Taliban.

Our goals in Afghanistan today are no different from those that Gorbachev set himself. Our armies are less likely than the Russians to be defeated on the battlefield. We too will leave in good order. But will we be any more successful than the Russians in leaving behind durable modern institutions and a viable Afghan government and army? Or will the country fall into a new civil war, and once more provide fertile soil for a new fanaticism?

No one knows.

Rodric Braithwaite, a former British ambassador in Moscow, is author of 'Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89', to be published on Thursday

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The final instalment of our WW1 series

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Simon Usborne: The more you watch pro cycling, the more you understand its social complexity

Simon Usborne
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice